Persistence of massive child poverty in Canada a national disgrace

And not just at Christmas time.

That among our highest civilization people die of want is not due to the inadequacy of   Nature, but to the injustice of man.
                                           —Henry George

Campaigns to collect food for the hundreds of thousands of poor families in Canada are conducted perennially in communities all across the country. The struggle to keep the food banks supplied is never-ending, but no longer makes the headlines. Most Canadians have become inured to the national scourge of hunger, considering it no more avoidable than the annual outbreaks of influenza.

There is one time of the year, however, when the food drives are intensified and draw more public attention. That’s during the two or three weeks before Christmas when a collective vow is taken that no child will go without a hearty dinner and at least one toy to unwrap on Christmas morning.

Thanks to this admirable national commitment, and to charities, relatives and friends, most of Canada’s indigent children on that day will have toys to play with, warm new clothing to wear, and a traditional holiday meal to allay their hunger.

But, despite this strenuous national exertion, there are limits to the ability of the Salvation Army, the food banks, and other dedicated charities and communities to make Christmas enjoyable for all half-million or more poverty-stricken children in our midst. Inevitably, some — probably many thousands — will wake on Dec. 25 to find no presents from Santa, no new clothes to replace their threadbare garb, no turkey cooking in the oven, no celebration of the Yuletide feast. 

For them and their families, that day will be no less wretched than any other day, and they will be left mired in the misery and destitution that is their sorry lot. And so will the hundreds of thousands of children temporarily lifted out of impoverishment for the Christmas season. After this brief respite, they will not be able to count on a continuation of food security, an will find themselves slipping back into the blight of penury when the Yuletide lights are dimmed and the carols stop being sung.

Appalling statistics

Food Banks Canada informs us that, in a typical month, more than 840,000 people require food bank assistance — one in three of them children.

As shocking as these figures are, they refer only to families so mired in poverty that they cannot adequately feed themselves. The actual extent of poverty in Canada, as reported by Canada Without Poverty, a leading anti-poverty organization, is that it afflicts one in seven Canadians — a shameful 4.8 million of us, including 546,000 children under the age of 17.

The groups most stricken by poverty are Indigenous peoples, single mothers, immigrants, persons with disabilities, children, and of course the growing numbers of homeless. They are also the most deprived of adequate food and shelter.

This appalling and increasingly steep rate of poverty — especially child poverty — tarnishes Canada’s image and international reputation. A country that is so bountifully endowed with wealth and resources has no excuse for failing to provide all of its citizens, particularly the youngest, with a decent and secure standard of living.

[Poverty] afflicts one in seven Canadians — a shameful 4.8 million of us, including 546,000 children under the age of 17.

A nation that condemns so many of its boys and girls to such a bleak fate certainly cannot legitimately claim to be “the best country in the world,” nor even to be among the best. In our legislatures and boardrooms, the as yet unrehabilitated Scrooges and Grinches still keep Canada far down on the international social benefit scale.

It’s not just Canada Without Poverty and other national agencies that deplore this country’s abysmal poverty levels. UNICEF ranks Canada 17th among the world’s wealthiest countries in allowing 14 percent of its children to live in poverty, and the OECD ranks Canada even worse for its overall poverty rate — 211st out of its 27 member nations.

No wonder the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, after visiting Canada a few years ago, was moved to deliver this stinging rebuke: “What I’ve seen in Canada is a system that presents barriers for the poor to access nutritious diets and that tolerates increased inequalities between rich and poor, and between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.”

Our federal and most provincial governments, instead of deploying their tax revenue to significantly lower poverty levels, have drained their treasuries with huge tax cuts for corporations and the affluent elite. This depletion of their financial capability gives them the contrived excuse that, when it comes to helping poor kids, “as much as we  would like to do so, we  just can’t afford it.” Instead, they have slashed their social spending and imposed brutal austerity measures, in the process effectively drafting the poor children of Canada to serve in the trenches of the “war” they are waging against the deficits they have deliberately incurred.

Mental and emotional abuse

The terrible deprivations inflicted on the poor, the jobless, and the homeless by this callous political mistreatment have dire lifelong consequences, notably for the children thus abused. And the abuse is as much mental and emotional as it is physical.

Several years ago, Grade 4 and 5 students from low-income families in Ontario were asked by the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition to answer this question: What does being poor mean to you? Here are some of their replies:

  • Feeling ashamed because my Dad can’t get a job.
  • Not getting to go to other kids’ birthday parties.
  • Being afraid to tell my Mom I need new gym shoes.
  • Not having pretty barrettes for my hair.
  • Hearing my Mom and Dad fight over money.
  • Wishing I had a nicer home.
  • Not being able to go camping.
  • Not being able to have my friends sleep over.
  • Pretending that I forgot my lunch.
  • Not having any breakfast some mornings.
  • Being teased for the way I’m dressed.

Reading those replies would be heartbreaking for most Canadians. You might think that would include our political and corporate leaders, but  most of them remain indifferent. They have no trouble sleeping at night knowing so many children suffer from their invidious dereliction.

Back in 1989, every MP in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister and all his cabinet ministers and backbenchers included, solemnly passed a resolution pledging to eliminate child poverty in Canada by the year 2000. They not only broke that unanimous promise, but their successors in Parliament have since allowed the poverty rate to rise higher, dooming many thousands more children to lives of pauperism and hunger.

The invisible victims

How does this political indifference to the anguish of so many children continue? Most likely it is perpetuated because of the invisibility of the victims, who for our political leaders have simply become numbers in the food bank reports that can be shrugged off — not living, breathing, suffering kids.

"At some point in the somber procession, perhaps even after just a few days, the MPs of all parties would surely have seen enough and order it stopped." Photo by A Yee / Flickr.
“At some point in the somber procession, perhaps even after just a few days, the MPs of all parties would surely have seen enough and order it stopped.” Photo by A Yee / Flickr.

Let’s imagine that we could send a procession of all the impoverished girls and boys down the aisle of the House of Commons, one by one, their sad, pinched faces and undernourished bodies plain to see. It would never happen, of course, but let’s suspend reality for a moment. It would take many months for all these hundreds of thousands of children to pass by. But at some point in the somber procession, perhaps even after just a few days, the MPs of all parties would surely have seen enough and order it stopped.

You would hope the MPs in this imaginary experiment, especially those on the government benches, would be so stricken by guilt and remorse that they would promptly launch a full-scale campaign to eradicate child poverty in Canada, as their predecessors in Parliament pledged to do 37 years ago. Judging by their past record of callous neglect, however, they would be more likely to pass yet another pious poverty-ending resolution and, when the images of all those forlorn children faded, just as unashamedly renege on it again.

To change such ingrained indifference, we might need more than moral arguments to motivate politicians and CEOs to mount a sincerely determined attack on child poverty.

The economic case

Fortunately, there is a strong anti-child-poverty case to be made on economic grounds, too. It shouldn’t take all that much intelligence, surely, to realize that people trapped in poverty when young are likely, when grown up, to be less skilled and less productive workers; to engage in criminal activities; and to become ill more often and more seriously and thus require more costly health care treatment.

A few years ago, the Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive think-tank in Washington, did a study on the economic costs of child poverty in the United States. Its researchers calculated that Americans who were poor as children –— there are now more than 40 million of them — are much more likely than other citizens when they grow up to be less productive in the workforce, to commit more crimes, and to need more medical care.

CAP researcher Harry J. Holzer stunned a Congressional committee when he told its members that the costs to the U.S. in crime, health care, and reduced productivity associated with poverty in childhood amount to an estimated $500 billion a year. This breaks down to about $170 billion a year in increased crime, $160 billion in increased medical costs, and another $170 billion in decreased productivity.

Far fewer people live in Canada than in the United States, so the economic cost of child poverty here is naturally much lower. Poverty Without Canada puts the cost at more than $72 billion annually, but even if that figure were considered too high on a per-capita basis, it surely could not be much lower than $40 billion. The Ontario Association of Food Banks estimates we would save $7.6 billion a year nationally on health care expenditures alone “simply by moving people from the lowest income bracket to the second lowest income bracket.” An even greater amount would be saved by keeping poor children in good health.

It might be assumed, because Canada has a public health care system and the U.S. does not, that children in Canadian families at all income levels get better health care and thus are not as much in need of medical treatment as adults. But medicare in Canada — unlike the public health care systems in every other advanced Western nation — does not cover pharmaceutical, dental, and vision needs. We have a “bare-bones” system confined to the services of  doctors and hospitals — a system that forces people who lack a workplace benefit plan to pay for these essential needs. But a vast number of poor families don’t have workplace coverage and can’t afford private drug and dental care plans. So, despite some assistance for kids provided by the provinces, many thousands of Canadian children grow up lacking comprehensive health care, as well as adequate nutrition, just like most impoverished kids in the U.S.

But our governments continue to remain unmoved by the scourge of child poverty. Why this persistent lack of all but feigned concern? Could it possibly be because the food banks are taking public pressure off them?

Charities as government buffers

There are about 60,000 organizations in Canada with charitable status that entitles them to issue tax-deductible receipts to their financial supporters. Their chief mandate is to come to the aid of the needy with services that governments should be providing, but aren’t. This frees governments to focus mostly on serving the needs and demands of corporations, their major stockholders, and the affluent élite.

I wonder sometimes if most charities have become, albeit unwillingly and perhaps unknowingly, integral cogs in the oligarchic machine. Would the corporations be able to keep on controlling governments and setting their agendas if the charities did not inadvertently cushion and conceal the worst effects of their plutocracy? (Perhaps this concern is what has motivated so many big business firms in recent years to participate, with much public fanfare, in campaigns to keep the food banks supplied.

Photo by Krista / Flickr.
“Would the corporations be able to keep on controlling governments and setting their agendas if the charities did not inadvertently cushion and conceal the worst effects of their plutocracy?” Photo by Krista / Flickr.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire the charities and support their work as best I can. But I do so with some reluctance, knowing that most of the essential services they provide should really be furnished by governments and funded from the taxes we pay. It’s not that there isn’t – at least potentially – enough money at the governments’ disposal.

Look at the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) figures for the past 35 years. Back in 1970, the per capita income in constant dollars (adjusted for inflation) was approximately $19,000. By last year, it had soared to nearly $38,000. In short, the country’s economic financial output has doubled since the 1970s – a time when our social programs were being generously funded and food banks were nowhere to be seen.

Clearly, with twice the national income from which to derive tax revenue today, our current governments should be amply funded, not just to maintain social programs, but to extend and improve them. There is certainly no excuse for deliberately forgoing billions in tax revenue and then claiming that an all-out government endeavour to end poverty in Canada is unaffordable.

As long as our governments stick with this feeble excuse, however, and as long as most Canadians accept it, the charities have no alternative but to continue providing services to the poor that governments have cut or even in some cases abandoned. If the food banks, for example, were to shut down, it would be a catastrophe for the nearly million families who have come to rely on them.

Of course, it would also be a disaster of a different sort for the uncaring politicians whose neglect of the poor would then be starkly exposed; but, as it stands, the food banks and charities cannot ethically stop helping the poor and hungry, even though it involves taking the politicians off the hook.

The Elephant in the Room

I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t mention the poverty-related elephant in the room that most people tend to overlook. It’s the prevailing global economic system. Capitalism thrives – and can only survive – by trying to maintain infinite growth on a finite planet, continuing to consume non-renewable resources that should be conserved, with no regard for the future dire consequences.

Capitalism feeds on competition and shuns co-operation, and so is inherently divisive. By forcing people to compete for jobs and income, for security and status, it creates a society of winners and losers, with many of the losers doomed to lives of poverty and distress.

Naomi Klein, in her book This Changes Everything, offers well-documented evidence that capitalism is both the greatest cause of global warming and the main deterrent to any serious government effort to curb it that corporations would perceive as threatening their profits. Klein bluntly subtitles her book Capitalism vs. the Climate. Similar books could be written titled Capitalism vs. Equality or Capitalism vs. a Poverty-Free Country.

By forcing people to compete for jobs and income, for security and status, [capitalism] creates a society of winners and losers, with many of the losers doomed to lives of poverty and distress.

This is not the place to elaborate further on such a controversial issue, but it would not be off-topic to suggest that an effective crusade to eradicate poverty in Canada would somehow have to get past that huge and powerful corporate “elephant”. This would have been less difficult back when corporations had to obtain charters from governments to operate – charters that spelled out their responsibilities and limits and could be revoked if those conditions were not met. But today the relationship between big business and governments has been reversed, most notably in the U.S. and Canada, where powerful corporations now control subservient governments.

And there’s the rub.

The prevalence of child poverty is one of the worst consequences of this reversal of corporate and political power – a silent coup d’état that keeps both poverty and inequality at steep and rising levels. This is not to imply that governments can never reclaim their predominance in a purportedly democratic country and genuinely resume governing in the public and not the private interest. But it does mean that it’s up to the majority of voters to elect that kind of government.

All that can be said of the Trudeau government, I’m afraid, is that it does not kowtow quite as submissively to the corporate overseers as the previous Harper government did.

Poverty-stricken children are powerless, but adults are not. The politicians who govern us are elected by adult Canadians, either by voting for them or failing to exercise the right to vote against them. There is still hope that, if our deeply flawed first-past-the-post electoral system can be replaced by a fair proportional representation system before the next election, the next federal government could throw off the corporate shackles and restore true democracy.

Until 2019, however, national poverty rates are likely to stay at their present inexcusable level, or soar even higher, so we must redouble our efforts to help the abused victims — especially the youngest and most vulnerable. Those among us who regrettably still fail to pitch in to support the food banks, the Salvation Army and other poverty-alleviating agencies, are – inadvertently or not – condoning the political and corporate dereliction.   

Some people who don’t pitch in to do their part in fighting poverty seem to believe that it’s not as bad as the “do-gooders” contend.

“No children are starving to death,” they point out, as if that justified their inaction. But is that really true? Our poor children may not die from hunger while young, but the impairment of their cardiovascular and immune systems while in the crucial early development stage can take a heavy toll later in life, and often not that much later. Just because they do not succumb from this “death-by-a-thousand-neglect-and-nutrition-cuts” until they reach their 30s or 40s, or die prematurely at any age, have they not in effect been starved to death? That fate has not then been averted, merely delayed.

In the past, when writing on this subject, I’ve compared our callous political and business leaders to Scrooge or the Grinch. But I now realize that I was being unfair to these Dickens and Dr. Seuss characters. Scrooge, after all, was eventually humanized. So was the Grinch. But the head-honchos in our legislatures and boardrooms remain as flinthearted as ever, just as far too many Canadians remain as inactive as ever.

And that’s why so many of our children remain as poor as ever.

An earlier version of this essay was published in Ed Finn’s 2015 anthology Canada After Harper: His ideology-fuelled attack on Canadian society and values, and how we can now work to create the country we want.

Ed Finn was editor at the CCPA Monitor for 20 years. Formerly, he was editor of the Western Star in Corner Brook, a reporter at The Montreal Gazette, and for 14 years wrote a column on labour relations for The Toronto Star. He also served for three decades as a communications officer for several labour organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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